Wednesday, August 14, 2013


When District 9 was released a few years back it introduced audiences to a talented new voice in film as well as the science fiction world in the form of writer/director Neill Blomkamp. Not only did he deliver the prerequisite bombast of a summer tentpole feature, but also some scathing sociopolitical commentary about Apartheid and human nature. It was a breath of fresh air and was a huge hit.

That was 2009. Now in 2013 his newest feature, Elysium, aims to further solidify Blomkamp’s place in geekdom via a huge budget and a major star in Matt Damon. Does it live up to the hype?
The Earth of the future is in chaos. The poor and downtrodden live on the dying surface while the rich and elite occupy an orbiting luxury space station known as Elysium. Ex-con-turned-factory worker Max (Matt Damon) is injured on the job and must find a way to get to Elysium in order to obtain treatment. In doing so he inadvertently starts a war between the two classes.

I stated in my review of Prometheus that I’ve always preferred science fiction to sci-fi. I love a movie that makes me think and ponder concepts and ideas that I normally take for granted. I also enjoy seeing things blow up real good, so when a movie can combine the two successfully I am in hog’s heaven. That was the case with District 9. Sadly it’s not the case with Elysium.
For starters there’s way too much sociopolitical commentary this time around. So much so that as an audience member I felt like I was being lectured to as I watched it. Not only is there the class warfare plot, but there is also a lot being said about immigration and universal healthcare. At times I didn’t feel like I was watching a movie, and was instead watching a documentary about the last two presidential administrations and the issues they faced. Overbearing and intrusive were the words ringing in my head as the film spun on, and in the end I felt like all the fun of the concept had been stripped away leaving me feeling indifferent about the project as a whole. I do encourage filmmakers to inject ideas into their films to make the audience use their brains, but this was definitely the wrong way to do it.

Another issue is that it speeds by at such a breakneck pace there is no time to get to know the characters, become accustomed to the world(s) they inhabit or even understand how integral plot points or devices work. For example – the exosuit worn by Damon’s character. We get a lot of explanation on how it works, and once it’s installed on his body it’s like he already had been using it for years. There are no scenes showing the acclimation to the strength/agility augmentation on the character’s part. He just gets off the operating table and KAPOW! he’s an instant superhero. And what’s worse is that he barely uses it to do anything out of the ordinary! Sure he rips a robot’s head off and is able to jump farther than usual, but that’s about it. Lamesauce.
Yet another issue is, and I’m blaming this mostly on the writing, Jodie Foster’s character of Delacourt, the head of Elysium’s security forces. Not only is she terrible in the part (her performance reminded me of her turn in Flightplan), but Delacourt is so underdeveloped and one-dimensional that the role could have been left out completely and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the overall scheme of things. Basically the part comes down to the fact that if she had a moustache she’d be twirling it like some old school western villain for the entire film. Foster adds fuel to the fire by speaking in a horrible French accent as well.

One more is the overuse of the shakycam. For crying out loud can we retire that style of filmmaking already?! Not only does it make it hard to see what is going on during the action scenes but it is used just for the hell of it most times. Lock that bitch down and let us actually get a look at the world you’ve spent all this time and money creating, would ya?!
My final major issue is that Elysium is, for all intents and purposes, a big budget remake of the 1995 crapfest Johnny Mnemonic. The main plot device is exactly the same - dude has information that was downloaded into his brain and he must get it from point A to point B before he dies. I will say that this film pulls it off way better than its predecessor did, but that wouldn’t have taken much effort. But like most of the film it gets lost in the myriad of way too many other things to keep track of, and by the time the conclusion rolled around I was like “Oh yeah, that’s still a thing. I forgot.”

On the flip side, Blomkamp knows how to fill the worlds he created with interesting technology and cool gadgets. I especially loved the weaponry. Bullets that explode in front of their target to cause collateral and shrapnel damage? Check. Rail guns that obliterate anything in their path? Check. Surface to space rocket launchers? Check. Laser targeted micro tracking personnel mines? Check. Seeing all these things in action put a smile on my face. I also thought the idea of the medical devices that can fix any issue, including cancer and genetic abnormalities, was kind of rad until its use is overused and turned into a generic plot device. The same goes for the exo-suits. Cool idea, bad execution.
Little details are also plentiful and very welcome. The fact that the population of Earth speaks Spanish with English as a second language is a nice addition, and the fact that the inhabitants of Elysium all speak French is as well. Robotic parole officers and police are fun and more than a little awesome too.

Blomkamp can certainly make a movie look amazing. He knows when to keep things simple (the dramatic bits) and when to go batshit crazy (those slo-mo shots of bullets exploding or people’s faces being ripped off). Sadly the shaky cam debacle ruins most of the shots when it rears its ugly head. The design of the locations is like a combination of what was seen in District 9 and Blade Runner.
Matt Damon and Sharlto Copley give strong performances, but I just wished that their parts were reversed. Seeing someone as lanky as Copley take on the hero role would have been more appropriate since Matt Damon looks like he could eat that scrawny dude for breakfast. Diego Luna also has a great part as Damon’s pseudo-sidekick. Unfortunately Alice Braga, who I have not liked in any movie I’ve seen her in (Predators, I am Legend, City of God), doesn’t even look like she’s trying to act here, only react. I already brought up the Jodie Foster debacle.

Look, I know I’m bashing this flick pretty hard. It has a lot of problems. That’s not saying that it’s not entertaining. It is. It’s just not nearly as good as District 9, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Pacific Rim, Man of Steel or even Oblivion. There are some cool action scenes, lots of wanton violence (Blomkamp loves having people explode in his movies) and the FX are rad. It’s just that there is such a thing as too much story, and for a movie crammed to bursting point with so many ideas and creative touches that only runs for 109 minutes it implodes on itself. There’s a lot to like, but the bad outweighs the good by far.

3 out of 5

p.s. Did it bother anybody else that Elysium looked at times like the Halo ring? Was it a coincidence that Blomkamp nearly directed a massively budgeted Halo flick before District 9? Hmmm…

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